It has been over two months since my last post; a bit of summer malaise combined with a schedule that has prevented more than a mere moment or two of uninterrupted thought has kept me from writing. Mind you, I don’t wish to complain about the schedule – being busy is a blessing in this economy – and the malaise has been unavoidable given the end-of-summer heat, the nearly unbearable national political bickering, and the escalating international roil. My thanks you readers who have inquired into my silence and encouraged my return.
Two months ago, ironically on a uniquely hot 106-degree July afternoon in Washington, Pablo and I were invited to attend a special preview screening of Ken Burn’s new film The Dust Bowl.
News of the extent and degree of the current Midwestern American drought was just reaching mass media.
The screening was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by good-friend and FRESHFARM Markets Co-Executive Director Ann Yonkers.
The film, which airs nationally on PBS November 17th and 18th, is based on author, journalist, and co panelist Timothy Egan
’s 2006 National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Time,
a history of the Dust Bowl. Baby-boomers like I nearly all carry with them hard-wired, family-amplified, memories about the Dust Bowl, and the hardships that were endured during this first man-made climate change event that struck the Great American Plains in the midst of the 1930s Great Depression. Younger echo-boomers are perhaps more likely to think of the Dust Bowl as a collegiate football event.
The Great American Plains have for generations been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions; American grain, predominantly corn and wheat, has been bountiful and has helped feed a global population that is rapidly increasing and expected to reach between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by 2050.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Wil S. Hylton
’s essay Broken Heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains
in the July issue of Harpers
(neatly tucked into the bag under my seat). Hylton’s essay had me thinking about American agriculture, and the dramatic shifts certain to occur as the Ogallala Aquifer – the great underground reservoir of fresh water under the Great Plains – is depleted and the irrigation systems run dry. The Ogallala has been irrigating American grain farms since it was tapped in the aftermath of the greate American Dust Bowl and World War II.
Co-panelist Lester Brown left me a bit “star-struck.” Seriously, I am now an official groupie. Mr. Brown is President and Senior Researcher at the Earth Policy Institute
. He has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” and – get this – in 1985 the Library of Congress requested his personal papers. Mr. Brown spoke in beautiful, but rather disturbing euphemisms and metaphors. He spoke of the “food unrest” that lay ahead as global mouths increase and global food production decreases. He spoke of the Ogallala’s depletion and the changes it will cause for American agriculture. More disturbingly for the global-minded, he spoke of the other grain-producing powerhouse regions in India and China which also rest above fresh water aquifers that “have been over-pumped for decades.”
A t-shirt on a fellow Cape-vacationer.
Dr. Brown went on to describe pending “movements on the food chain” that will occur among global populations. Get this: the average American currently consumes an average of 1,400 pounds of grain annually – directly and indirectly. Imagine for a moment the grain required to “grow” a steer to virtually a ton of body weight before it is slaughtered and neatly butchered into that T-bone steak on our American plates. And, conversely the average east Indian consumes an average of 400 pounds of grain – much more directly as rice than indirectly. These food chain movements will occur as grain becomes scarcer, and the less efficient, higher food chain proteins are replaced in the diet by more efficient proteins.
I found this notion of “efficient” proteins fascinating. It has made my eating, and the protein choices I make much more mindful. Certain fish, tilapia for example, can be farm-raised quickly with relatively little grain “investment.” It made think about food in terms of its “renewability” for the first time; it provided much-needed intellectual context to the grass-fed beef and pork debate.
A month later, we found ourselves on Cape Cod for a bit of rest and recharging. Provincetown is sure to stimulate my creativity, and the proximity to such expanses of sea renders me tranquil. We spent an afternoon aboard one of P-town’s Dolphin Fleet on a whale-watching excursion. Naturalists and scientists from around the world who come to study the whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
staff the fleet; the excursion – despite the distressing lack of listening skills evidenced among modern Americans – brought to mind wonderful memories of professorial learning and college days. I was a sponge.
Happily, and to the great pleasure of all excursionists, we saw bountiful Humpback Whales. They were breaching and tail-flapping in the waning afternoon sun. They were putting on a show for the humans on the boat. We learned that the Humpback is an endangered specie of baleen whale. And, that baleen whales are characterized by having baleen plates for filtering food from water. These baleen plates, made from the same substance as human fingernails, serve as a sort of fibrous teeth. These beautiful, enormous and intelligent sea mammals feed themselves by filtering some of the smallest most elemental proteins from the seawater. For months they fast while they travel to warmer southern waters to breed.
These wonderful mammals efficiently sustain themselves from the very bottom of food chain; while we humans occupy the other, less-efficient end of the chain. Whether it is to happen in my generation or not, I was inspired to mindfully prepare for food unrest and food chain movement.